The Second Person

He says hello as if nothing is different, and maybe it isn’t. You’re not really sure because you were drunk. But you weren’t that drunk. And it wasn’t anything major. You didn’t really do anything. Your stomach swings backward and forward anyway as he keeps talking to you as if you have never been closer than you are now, standing in the hallway and talking about verbs. Or something. You are not really listening. You are trying to remember.

You feel queasy most of the day. You avoid eye contact with everyone.

a beer in Bankia
a beer in Bankia

You have no one to talk to, and so you decide to pretend nothing happened. Which may be true. And if it isn’t true, he’s pretending and you’re not sure you can handle the rejection in that. You’ve had enough rejection lately.

You spend the rest of the day looking for clues and find none. Well, except for his roommate looking at you strangely during a meeting, but that may be your over active imagination.

The important thing is that you never catch him looking at you strangely because his ability to pretend is absolute.

I don’t write in the first or second person in fiction where I’m a third person sort of girl. Maybe we could psychoanalyze that, but I don’t see the point. I found, however, that when I sat down to write this particular scene (to make a point that wasn’t about person at all), that I could write this slice-of-my-life only in the second person. Those first person pronouns escaped and refused to come back.

Some stories demand a particular point of view–and that view may be bring you closer to the edge or hold you safely back. They may also confuse or mislead the reader. Which you don’t want to do because you’re not that sort of person. Fiction may all be pretend, but not all pretend is the same.

Is the point of view you like to write in different from the point of view you like to read in? Does it matter to you?

5 thoughts on “The Second Person

  1. James Wood assures us (“How Fiction Works”) that first person is most reliable. I think James Woods is a bit of a show-off if not an outright snob, although I do like some first person (Dickens, Twain) but I also like second and third and particularly multiple, especially multiple third (“The Moonstone,” ). But the real answer is, it depends on the characters and on the writer. I’m in the midst of a first person novel, which wasn’t the result of any thought process I’m aware of. I’m big on second for my blog posts and such journaling as I do now is in third person, referring to me as he. I love Raymond Chandler in the first person. These are not conscious, deliberate choices but rather what ultimately feels right.

    You could raise similar questions about tenses. Ever since Bobbie Ann Mason, whom I realy like, short story writers began using present tense. I tried it and was sceptical because I wasn’t satisfied with the story, but then I got it in a story I liked and now, same rule of selection obtains, whichever comes out is the tense du jour.

  2. I always struggle with the question of POV. Perhaps it is because I, like Shelly, enjoy reading and writing different POVs, depending upon the needs of the story and the characters. If I don’t have a go to POV, then each time I begin a story, I have to figure out the specific needs. I have turned novels from first to third, or sometimes the other way around. I guess it’s a good exercise, but it’s annoying.

  3. Consensus seems to be a-brew here (including from this corner): “it depends.” Don’t you hate that? 🙂

    First person’s tricky. I haven’t read James Wood, whom Shelly cites, but I agree with Shelly’s assessment of the reliability of the first person: of necessity, the first-person POV will always be unreliable in one respect, that the narrator can never know everything. An interesting variation on this is The Good Soldier, in which the narrator seems an astute observer of the other characters, their motivations, and so on, but is kind of blind to his own role — his own self. He’s a blend of reliable and unreliable.

    Anther complication with first: I find myself wondering when, exactly, the narrator wrote all this down — all these memories like “Then I crossed the room and opened the top left drawer…” require (for me) a huge suspension of disbelief. Like, “You really remember all that?”

    Second person (especially w/present tense) draws me into the action. Which I like for some reading/writing. Trouble is (when reading it), it can be hard not to feel manipulated. When the author says, “You open the door,” I’m thinking Yeah? Like hell I do!

    Third person is good neutral territory. It is to the “Which person do you prefer?” question what forms of “to say” are to the “What speaking verb do you prefer in dialogue scenes?”

  4. My favorite author, Sheri S. Tepper, wrote her most recent book, The Margarets, from a wide range of perspectives about 7 different spin-offs of the same person. Sort of like the Gwyenth Paltrow movie, Sliding Doors, in which certain threshold moments have the ability to completely change a person’s course of destiny. Like Marge Piercy’s books, this is one of my favorite literary techniques. I love reading a story from a variety of perspectives.

  5. Sophie, it’s been a while since I’ve read Tepper, but she is awesome. I liked Sliding Doors too, but I haven’t read Piercy.

    To the rest of you folks, I generally agree. Though I admit to being out off by novels that start in the first person. If I read them, I usually like them, but my tendency is to put them back on the shelf. I can’t imagine writing a novel in that tense–but never say never.

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